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Torture is not about "winning the afternoon," OK?

Reporting, though, is only part of the equation: The motto around the Politico newsroom is to "win the morning, win the afternoon"--by which editors mean that Politico's stories need to be the most talked-about and cited in that day's news cycle.

-- The New Republic, "The Scoop Factory," Feb. 2009.

I know this must be hard for the editors at the Politico to fathom, but there are actually some stories that come down the pike that are more important, and more complicated, than "winning the morning" or "winning the afternoon." The growing drumbeat of revelations about the torture of prisoners in American custody -- in a scheme that was cooked up and then rationalized at the highest levels of our government -- is nothing less than a moral test of who we are as a nation and where we want go from here. It doesn't lend itself to cute little "up" and "down" arrows, to dueling cable shouters "on the right" and "on the left," to all the little devices we in the media use to equate American politics on the soundbite level of sports' "Pardon the Interruption."

I was thinking about that last week as I was reading the latest thrust by the Politico-Drudge alliance, framing the torture story not as one as a failed test of the morals of the president we had just 96 days ago (his name was George W. Bush in case you've forgotten) and his administration, but as yet another new challenge for President Barack Obama. Their emphasis was that "Obama's attempt to project legal and moral clarity on coercive CIA interrogation methods has instead done the opposite — creating confusion and political vulnerability over an issue that has inflamed both the left and right."

The article was off-base in so many ways it's hard to know where to begin. For what it matters, Obama has been very consistent on this topic from Day One, and I know, because I was the very first reporter to ask him about the notion of prosecuting Bush White House officials -- inspired specifically by the torture issue -- when the then-candidate visited the Daily News 12 months ago. What he said then is what he's saying now, that he wants his presidency to be forward looking but that no one is above the law. It's true that a key Obama aide, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, caused some confusion by saying something different in one interview...but ultimately, so what? Should one misstatement really distract us from the fundamental truths that a nation that was founded to promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness strayed so far from those ideals.

One of things that the Politicos and David Broders and other channelers of the Beltway zeitgeist seem so unable to fathom is quite simply that the torture issue is simply bigger than eben Obama's ability to control. Sure, he can influence some key aspects of it, as he did with last week's release of the Justice Department memos. But at the end of the day, it is not -- and should not be -- Obama's decision on whether to prosecute, but the deliberate and independent judgment of the Justice Department.

And an issue this big belongs to all of us, anyway. It belongs to our elected representatives, who must decide whether to press their own investigations and whether to impeach one of the torture memo authors, Jay Bybee,. now a federal appeals judge. It belongs to rand-and-file citizens to press our leaders to act. And of course it also belongs to those of us in the news media, who have the ability to investigate the facts that government, even a new government, might find uncomfortable to expose, and also to provide the moral framework and outraged tone that a story like this one deserves.

For the most part, we've failed so far. It was more than a little disheartening to learn of the crippling fear inside the newsroom of the New York Times, where editors and reporters were so afraid of offending, so afraid of anyone thinking that the newspaper was taking a side, that the news staffers refused to label globally outlawed practices such as waterboarding as "torture." On the same morning we learned about that wishy-washiness at our most influential newspaper, David Broder of the Washington Post was trying to argue that the torture story isn't about obeying the law, or about our national soul, but "cloaks an unworthy desire for vengeance." I believe what Broder is really saying is that it's impossible for him to believe that someone who lunches across from him at the Palm or the Capitol Grille is capable of what Frank Rich described as "the banality of evil," that someone who wears a nice tie or has a kid in Little League could condone or encourage unlawful, violent and sometimes even lethal acts -- acts which we are now learning were carried out to achieve the dubious political ends of our leaders.

Almost every flaw of our craft has been on display in the last week or two -- the pleading for a middle-of-the-road answer to a problem where there is no middle ground, the phony "he said, she said" journalism that gives a 50 percent voice to the advocates of American-bred torture, the use of unnecessary anonymous quotes to defend the indefensible, the need for an elite inside-the-Beltway clique to circle the wagons, to insist that aggressive prosecution is only for the crimes that "regular people" commit.

What a shame. Although it is tragic that we must be talking about something like torture in the United States of America in 2009, this issue does offer modern journalism a chance to do something we have not done in at least a generation -- and that is to provide this nation, our readers and viewers, with moral clarity and leadership. There is still time to show that we've learned something from the fiasco of pre-Iraq war journalism, when a lack of aggressive reporting and a kowtowing to authority made us a co-conspirator in one major step into the abyss, when we launched a "pre-emptive war" against a nation not capable of attacking us. Now, there is no reason why every journalistic voice in this country can say it as simply as Fox News Channel's Shepherd Smith, that "we are America, we do not (expletive deleted) torture." Why not? I don't know any journalist who thinks there are two sides to freedom of the press, so why should freedom from torture be any different?

And then we can follow that up by proving we're still capable of what we once did best -- aggressive investigative reporting, fighting for more openness and transparency, and letting the chips fall where they may, regardless of who gets long as people are held accountable. That won't solve all of journalism's woes -- it won't bring back our classified ads, to name just one -- but this is something that is in our control, where we can do the right thing. It starts with remembering that in every generation, there comes a story where there's no sitting on the fence -- and that this is our story.

And that there are actually a few things more important in this world than "who won the afternoon"?